Quick Review: A Brief History of the Normans

A Brief History of the Normans: The Conquests that Changed the Face of Europe is an interesting if a somewhat “textbookish” read. While most people associate the Normans with the Norman invasion of England in 1066 their history is far older. The name of course comes from the term ‘Norsemen’ and they were one of the most successful warrior tribes of the early medieval period. Rulers over vast swaths of Europe from the Baltic Sea to the borders of Eastern Europe, they both influenced and were influenced by numerous cultures. However, their presence was most firmly felt in the area that eventually took their name: Normandy. From there they set out on a number of military campaigns, while also introducing political and cultural innovations innovations that paved the way for late medieval society. 

 Written by an eminent french historian, Francios Neveux, this short book is both informative and readable for the armchair historian. My only complaint is that it can be a bit dry at times. A stronger emphasis on primary sources may have alleviated this aspect, but it also may have made it a less accessible read.

Book Review: Sent

“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Matthew 19:21. 
This has to be one of the most challenging passages in the New Testament, especially for those of us living in the affluent West during the digital age. All too often Christians (and I would assume this phenomenon is not exclusive to Christianity) pick and choose which Bible passages or which dogma to follow, and Matthew 19:21 is never high on anyone’s list. But this is exactly what the Alans of Chapel Hill, NC attempt to do in the new release by WalterBrook Multnomah Publishing. Sent is the story of one family who literally sold everything they had to move to a third world country to work as missionaries. However, while the motivation behind the book is honorable and the potential for a riveting narrative is there, Sent leaves too many questions unanswered or unexplored. 
The book opens with a lot of promise. Hilary Alan, her husband, Curt, and their two children are living the American dream. A beautiful home, a fast-track career, talented, successful children and an active church life all come together to create a “made for TV” family. But living a life that seems taken straight out of the Mitt Romney playbook just is not fulfilling enough for them. So they sell off all they have and move half way around the world to southeast Asia to help rebuild communities after the Tsunami of 2004. 
A tale like this one has so much potential to be a page turning and life affirming read. As I made my way through the first few chapters, which dealt with the Alans discerning of their future and the subsequent letting go of a lifetime’s worth of accumulated baggage, both physical and emotional, I found myself wondering what the future would hold for them. What would day-to-day life be like? What steps would they take to help these people who have been utterly devastated by nature at her cruelest? What exactly goes into “rebuilding a community?” I craved some nuts and bolts details about a journey I could never imagine myself being brave enough to take. 
As Sent progresses the clear narrative voice of Hilary emerges and we get to see the experience largely through her eyes. Her husband, Curt, and their two children do not factor into the book’s overall focus as much as I would have liked. It isn’t that Mrs Alan’s views are uninteresting, so much as they are limited. Her experience tightly revolves around her faith, so we read a lot about the establishing of their house church and her personal witnessing to those around her. We watch as she builds relationships with the people she encounters, but those relationships are often clouded by an employer/employee dynamic that falls short of authentic in this reader’s opinion. There is also a fair dose of look-how-great-my-kids-are narrative sprinkled throughout. As a parent I understand the temptation to shine a light brightly on those who mean the most to you, but this is hard to pull off as a writer without it coming across a little too saccharine.  
It is not clear from the text why we never hear about Curt’s position within the community. He is officially hired to manage the rebuilding process, but aside from a single anecdote about a false tsunami warning (which is actually one of the more powerful sections in the book) we hear little to nothing about how this process works. This is an unfortunate omission as I think that story would go a long way towards battling the stereotypes that often surround the idea of missionary workers. I realize that critics of the movement are not the intended audience for this book, and perhaps my own fault-finding here revolves more around the idea that I wish Alan wrote a different book- one that told how Christians can be the hands and feet on the ground, serving and helping, rather than just witnessing to those for whom they feel called to serve. 
 Overall, Sent is a good, but not great, book. If you are a Christian with evangelical leanings then this book will probably resonate with you. Seeing someone literally give it all up to go and do God’s work is a powerful thing. However, if you have reservations about the evangelical movement this will not necessarily allay those concerns, which is unfortunate. People like the Alans are doing amazing things all around the world – rebuilding homes, feeding families, teaching the poor and changing lives. A book that focused on the concrete aspects of this work could show those who have a stereotyped view of the evangelical movement that there is more going on here than simple proselytizing. Sent just isn’t that book.

Book Review: Children of Jihad

I’ll come right out at the start of this review and say that this is an excellent, and in many ways, eye-opening read. Many of the misconceptions the average American holds about the Middle East could be remedied by a weekend spent reading this page turning adventure story of a young American’s travels among the youth of the Middle East. Jared Cohen, who would later go on to work in the US State Department under both President Bush and President Obama,  skillfully makes use of his own youthful fearlessness as a journalist to produce a revealing look at the youth of Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Iraq. 
Most 23-year-old graduate students fortunate enough to earn a Rhodes scholarship spend their time and stipend in the hallowed halls of Europe’s finest schools. Cohen took a somewhat different path spending his time trekking through the Middle East. Children of Jihad details his travels and the people he meets along the way. Each of the five sections open with a brief overview of the history of the region which often includes some of the author’s own misconceptions about the youth he is preparing to meet. Cohen, as a Jewish American, is understandably nervous about the adventure he is having, yet again and again his preconceived notions are proven false as he meets a youth culture that is predominantly pro-American and friendly. Regaling readers with anecdotes that rage from meetings with Hezbollah to debating politics with internet savvy 20-somethings, Cohen presents a Middle East that wants to join the rest of the world but is being held back by governmental forces they are trying to resist.

What I enjoyed most about this book were the one-on-one relationships that Cohen developed with young people from each country. Almost without fail they were eager and willing to share their stories; eager to have the outside world get a taste of the real Iran, Iraq, Lebanon etc. First, he meets two women from the University of Tehran, and is introduced to the city’s nightlife where women shed their head-to-toe coverings and dress like normal western students partying well into the night. For the youth of Iran this is their way of rebelling against the ruling authority. In fact, late night underground “rave” style parties are something of a recurring theme throughout Cohen’s travels. 

Later he has a sit down with a Hezbollah general who, while surprisingly polite and approachable, mainly offers the traditional talking points. It is later, when Cohen is able to speak candidly with the foot soldier, the youth, that he realizes that many of them clearly differentiate between governments and citizens stating that they have no problems with Jewish people or Americans individually. The author doesn’t romanticize them. Tales of their violence are present as well, but it is the conversations at the local fast food restaurant about a need to connect to the wider world that really pull the narrative along.

In the end what Cohen ultimately finds is that our western stereotypes simply do not fit the world he witnessed.

As an American Jew traveling in the Middle East during this age of terror, I should have been unwelcome, I should have felt unsafe, and it should have been impossible for me t engage on any level with people that I have been told hated my country and religion. But I found that the easy, monolithic characterization of “us versus them” fails to take into account the humanity and the individuality of all the people who make up “us” and “them.” And the “them” I met … should make all of us hopeful for the future. (270)